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Surf’s Up in Mentawai

I’m falling from the top of a 15-foot wave; as surfers say “sucked over the falls.” My mind flashes: ‘protect your head… try to hit the reef standing…was it 9 or 12 hours to the nearest hospital?’
I come plunging down with the lip.  The wave implodes.
It sounds like a sonic boom.  I “get donuts”; sucked back up and down again in the churning water – but I never touch the reef.
“Oooooohhh… you got drilled!” yells a surfer paddling by.
I gasp for air, then we laugh. And then it hits me.  Indonesia is like that.
Especially the Mentawai Archipelago. Despite a million things to worry about you end up smiling a lot.

A few weeks earlier the price of that smile had quite a few people scratching their heads.  Co-workers asked “what about your bills?”  Relatives reminded me I have relatives to come back to. “What about the terrorists?”, asked a friend. “Don’t talk about religion”, said my mom.  But I was more concerned with just getting there.

Traveling from Washington, D.C. the actual price to surf the Indian Ocean is about $4000 give or take a grand. The jet-lag is non-negotiable.

It takes about 48 hours to get from the East Coast to the Mentawai Islands. After a plane, a plane, a hotel, a plane, a shuttle, and another hotel, there was an 85 mile boat ride before we ever put on our surf shorts.

Heading west from Mainland Sumatra, we left Padang Harbor at midnight and started spotting lumps on the horizon well after breakfast.
The islands – 4 big ones, more than 40 altogether – looked like a Corona commercial.  Smaller ones the size of football fields were framed by almost invisibly blue water.  A symmetrical ring of off-white sand corralled the palms.

Beautiful stuff, but the jackpot for us was the surf. The kind that makes tired men giggle and dance. “Some of the most consistent perfect surf on the planet, ” according to Jordan Heuer, our guide, and also a local-boy from the Big Island. Those waves are the islands’ modern-day curse or savior, depending who you ask.

For our group of seven surfers it was a modern-day theme park. We surfed 2 to 5 times a day, 3 to 6 hours a day. “It’s firing!” someone would chirp.  And we would start racewalking around the boat, lacing-up our surf shorts, layering on sunscreen, finding our gear and loading into a small skiff.  The skiff would race out to the top of the lineup, where the waves were just starting to break.  We would all jump out with giant, silly grins. Hours later, we would climb back into the skiff exhausted and still grining. One look at a map and it’s obvious why. At its position just below the equator on the Western edge of Indonesia, the island chain acts as a catcher’s mitt for the entire Indian Ocean. During the dry season from May to October storms near Antarctica fuel almost constant swells.  The reefs pick up swells from any direction and the “wrap-around” effect causes surf on all sides of the islands.

Luckily for us, most locals won’t go near the waves. Scientists believe the Mentawai people arrived on the islands about 20 thousand years ago, during the end of the last Ice Age when mammoths and saber-tooth cats roamed Australasia.

Shamans called Sikeries are still the primary problem-solvers in many villages.  The medicine men dance under the skulls of monkeys and boars to communicate with spirits.  Modern medicine is almost unheard of outside the capital village of Tuapajet. Even there, the only medical facility is a small clinic set up in a local schoolhouse.

A 1992 census says there are about 50,000 people in the Mentawais, but from our boat we rarely saw natives on the beach.  Most locals live along rivers further inland on the main islands.  We could count the villages at dinnertime by the different smoke trails rising from the dark green jungle.

As the story goes, the Mentawais were first surfed about 25 years ago by wandering surfers hitching rides on cargo boats.  Villagers watched from the beach amazed. “When they saw the people surf they said oh f*** this is crazy,” says Un, a local player in the relatively new tourism industry. Because of its remoteness the surf stayed mostly unsurfed until 1989 when an Australian surfer “discovered” a wave forming nearly flawless “barrels” off the tip of South Sikakap island. In 1991, the Aussie told a friend about his secret paradise, and the friend arranged a surf-trip with some pro-surfers.  By the mid-90’s, with word-of-mouth spreading fast, the “secret spot” was finally “outed” in a magazine photo spread. The fuse had been lit. Aussie and American businessmen scrambled to set up tours and the surf-media scrambled for more coverage. Between 1994 and 1997 the Mentawais were featured in more than 8 major surf videos. “Dude, you gotta go, it’s totally worth the money”, became the pitch-line for surfers throughout the world.

Today more than one hundred boats are available for charters through the internet. And that machine-like left, now called “Macaronis”, is one of the more famous waves in the world.  On any decent day during the charter season you’d be lucky to surf the spot with fewer than 10 guys out.
We surfed “Macaronis” for 2 days with 15 guys out, and one lady from Arizona. And the memories are worth the hassle.  Some pro-surfers say “Maccas” is the most “rip-able” wave in the world.  I barely “rip” and I got one of the best “barrels” of my life.

Surfing aside, the scene at the edge of South Sikakap island is surreal. While the crowd bobs in the lineup, 5 or 6 boats bob just off the surf-zone with photographers shooting every wave. Along the beach the trees are dead, killed by the saltwater, leaving just a few dozen dried out 50-foot tall trunks like giant splinters sticking out of the mud.  Some scientists say it’s because the islands are sinking as the floor of the Indian Ocean slides beneath the Indonesian plate.

The land is weirder up-close. I went to explore the island and look for a diving mask I lost in the reef.  The local guides on our boat laughed knowing the island was surrounded by reef and there was no easy way to get there. The skiff dropped me off a few yards off the coral shelf.  Wearing tennis shoes I swam onto the ankle-deep reef and climbed up.  Walking through the tidepools my eyes bulged open – on the lookout for malarial mosquitos, poisonous stone fish, spiders, sharp coral and killer snakes.
“Five minutes, you die”, said our Indonesian cook about the snakebites. I followed the only reasonable path – hop-scotching from coral head to coral head up to a sandy mangrove. Trees with enormous roots spider-webbed into the soft ground.  Climbing over the fringe of dead trees, I became stranded.  The only path forward was through a shallow river with murky warm water running over tan sand.  I threw in a rock.  The rock sunk.  I poked a stick.  The stick sunk.  Quicksand?  I thought of those movies where the hapless adventurer is stuck up to his neck yelling for help.  Aren’t his rescuers usually cannibals?  (In fact, Sumatran tribesmen in the high rainforests are said to have practiced cannibalism). I decided to be quicker than the quicksand.  To run – like those lizards that skip across water.  It would take about 5 steps.  My first step: shhhlllooop. Crap.  Instantly up to my knee.  Quickly: shlooop, shloop, shloop, shlooop.  I hoped onto a piece of rotted coral, then onto a rotted stump, exhilarated.
Up over the tree line was what looked like a bog, and beyond that a grassy marsh as big as ten football fields – a Hilton for snakes.  I continued on the reef around the edge of the small peninsula, looking for the mask.  I never found it.  With the sun dipping, I jumped off the edge of the reef and swam back to the boat.

My second trip back was much shorter.  While setting up a video shot with a friend I noticed mosquitos covering our legs.  We ran for the ocean and never went back.

At night the charter boats anchor in the islands’ lee bays.  The flotilla is usually only a few hundred yards from local villages, but the cultures are a world away. Most Mentawaian families live in communal huts with no electricity and no running water.

Our boat was air-conditioned, with toilets, showers, soft beds, fluffy towels and 3 incredible meals a day.  When we weren’t surfing or fishing or tending our reef cuts, we watched pirated movies on a flat screen tv with surround-sound stereo. After dinner, surfers from different boats would visit each other, coming on board for small parties. The scene sounds like a “Vanity Fair” photo shoot: 15 tan, shirtless, muscular guys from around the world drinking Bintang beer, smoking clove cigarettes, jamming to reggae music and talking all at once about the waves, the cost, the bugs and the fish.The main event for these get-togethers was watching the amateur video of ourselves surfing that day. Every good wave or wipeout on the flat screen came with a chorus of 15 different one-liners.  And almost every comment started with a long “ooohhhhhhhhhhh!” “you got pummeled!” “how’s that cavern?” “shacked!”

My face sometimes ached from laughing so much. After the videos, another round of cloves and 15 brother-style handshakes, the visiting surfers would climb into their motorized tin skiff – like some ultra-hip Beneton eco-venture ad – and then zoom off in the darkness to their own floating hotels somewhere across the bay.

If there was one dream among the single men on our boat it was that the trip came with females.  Except for the odd girlfriend or wife, most tours are a bros-only venture.  (One nearby boat carried a group of South African bikini models.  On deck photo shoots were a bay-wide event, with guys from other boats whistling and watching through binoculars.)

Cocooned in this fantasy world, few surfers come face to face with native  Mentawaians. On my trips to shore I smiled at close-range to about two dozen villagers: kids holding machetes and burning sticks, an elderly couple husking coconuts with a loaded shotgun nearby for monkeys, young men watching me fish from shore. Everyone always smiled back, but their politeness may have been hiding some resentment.

“They like us,” said Jordan.  “But they want a piece of it somehow.” Most surfers would agree the Mentawaians’ share of the surf industry, so far, has not been fair. The charter companies making money off of the Mentawai waves get all their supplies back on the mainland.  Once in the Mentawais, most surfers won’t spend more than ten U.S. bucks in ten days, buying souvenirs from local boat vendors. The men paddle their dugout canoes to the charter boats in the morning and hang around until dark, holding up their carvings when you come out for a pee.

But the paddling peddlers have been getting restless.

In the future, Un, 30, a local tourism official, foresees construction. Villages may soon build jetties to stop anchors from tearing up the reefs.  And “every boat (would) have to anchor at that place,” says Un. Most Mentawaians are also open to the idea of small eco-friendly hotels, but Un adds hopefully “…not too many Bungalows.” On the other hand, Un is also dreaming of an Mentawai airport someday. I pray that dream never comes true.

Right now, the closest thing to an airport is a tiny harbor on the main island of Sipora. Stopping by to look for a phone, we felt like dumb-Americans. While my dingbat friends handed out chocolate to kids with rotten teeth, one of their dingbat girlfriends went for a walk in her bikini.  The harbor master reminded her that Indonesia is a Muslim country and politely asked her to put on more clothes. Further south, in the Spice Islands, or a few hundred miles north, in the city of Aceh, where a civil war is in progress, she might have been thrown in jail. There, Sharia is the law.  Under the Islamic legal system alcohol is banned, women must cover their hair, and a thief’s hands may be amputated. The fundamentalists have been making headlines lately for raiding hotels, smashing liquor bottles and confiscating pornography.  And then, of course, there was the Bali bombing, from which Indonesia is still recovering.

But Un shrugs it off, “in West Sumatra, Padang, Mentawai… it’s very quiet.” Then like a good tourism official he teaches me something.  When you come to a Mentawai house in the jungle, Un says, “they never close the windows… they never close the doors.  That means everybody can come. This is the culture.” Un smiles, showing his crooked brown teeth, and it hits me again: the Mentawaians are some of the nicest people I have ever met. For ten days, I dreaded ever having to leave.

Heading home from Padang I grabbed a newspaper. Angelina Jolie was breaking up with Billy Bob.  The US was planning to attack Iraq. I thought about work, and traffic. My stomach churned.

I switched to thoughts of the empty Indian Ocean.  On the last day, I had started counting things: 72 sea-flea bites on my right leg, 13 skin abrasions, 20 surfers in the lineup at “Hollow Trees”. I asked Jordan that day why good waves were worth $3000, bodily injury and crippling jet-lag. “Because people need to get the barrel of their life”, he said. It makes complete sense to any surfer.

For every hour we spent surfing with a crowd of strangers, we spent many more hours all alone, sitting on our boards, watching the fish and waiting for another perfect wave. Non-surfers may never understand this sense of “stoke”, as surfers say.

But then again, we kind of like it that way.

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